Resilience, a double-edged sword
I have come to dislike resilience when it comes to getting things done. I used to think it was a good skill to cultivate. If I found frictions, I used to thought it was a matter of putting enough time to overcome them. I have changed my mind quite a bit in recent times. In fact, I am now almost obsessed with two abilities that are in confrontation with resilience: restating problems and quitting early when things don’t work.
I have always found extremely appealing defining problems properly and aiming at the right targets. A remember a bunch of aha moments when I read Are Your Lights On? and An Introduction to General Systems Thinking many years ago. And yet, in hindsight, I can think of many occasions where I have been bitten badly for not applying such principles. Not targeting the right problems. Not taking action on the root causes.
The problem can take many shapes but let me clarify with an example: technical problems in software development. We, developers, love complex technical stuff and feel challenged by it. We feel good when we can move in a difficult environment and come out alive with something working. I am very familiar with this flow:
- I find a technical thing that looks appealing (e.g: a framework, pattern, architecture, etc)
- The theory behind looks compelling, I study it.
- When it is coding time, things are not that fluent. I find many frictions, but I keep pushing, finding solutions to the problems I encounter.
- Eventually, I get something working.
- Finally, I look at how it looks from some distance, and it is a piece of crap.
What happened in (5) is that I finally understood the tradeoffs. My mistake in the past has been paying little attention to my gut feelings in (3). I am trying to pay much more attention to those early on in recent times.
Restating problems is something that is easy to talk about, but is very difficult to put into practice. I have tried to do it recently in a number of situations, and it is a skill I hope to improve in the coming years.
I have come to believe that knowing to quit early is a super-power. The key is, of course, knowing to differentiate dead ends from things that are difficult but worth it. There are a bunch of articles and even podcasts dedicated to this subject. To be honest, I didn’t find any answer that resonated with my own experience, because they usually try to distill into objective factors something that is mostly emotional and subjective.
In my experience, the answer is, again, your very own gut feelings. Are you happy with what you are doing? Do you feel energized by it? Are you growing and learning? If the answer to those questions is no, then your immediate next action should be to change course. And doing that can be difficult for a number of reasons:
- We tend to value things based on the time we have invested in them (sunk cost fallacy). The more time we invest, the more difficult it is to drop it.
- Sometimes, since some approach works for many people, we think we should make it work for us. I have come to fully accept that this isn’t necessarily true, even when the problems are identical. Trying to use an approach that doesn’t fit your mental model is not going to fly, especially in the long term.
- Your goals, priorities and vision change with time and experience. That is perfectly fine and healthy. But you need to be sure your actions are aligned with those.
I am not in the camp of people who advocate for failing as it if was something to look for. The best approach is to take the right actions, always. But the next best approach is to change course when you realize those actions were not the right pick. Dropping something that is not working sucks but, in my experience, offers the most amazing lessons. I have acquired a good amount of priceless knowledge this way. Quitting early is doubling down on such learning. And I love that.
I learned early on in my career that personal happiness should be a major indicator to decide what to do. This indicator has served me very well when I have listened to it, and it has bitten me badly when I haven’t. By definition, it is very difficult to be wrong when you try to maximize your happiness.
Restating problems should be in your toolbox during all the problem-resolution lifecycle. It is essential when you are deciding what to do. But it is equally crucial after you start working on something and, through experience, you realize it wasn’t the right approach.
Quitting early, while painful, can bring great benefits, especially in the long term. Less wasted time and more opportunities to learn and be happier with what you do. Instead of focusing what you are going to lose if you quit, try to focus you what you are losing by not quitting.
I think experience is an important factor here. At least in my case, it was through real-world experience that things finally clicked and come to appreciate how crucial these skills were.